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Struggle For Space: A Programme of Urban Resistance

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Demolition by J. Childs of a stable, Bungay Lane, Park Hill Flats in background (picturesheffield.com)

Who owns the land? This single question can be taken as the cause for almost all conflict throughout history.

Though the way this question has been answered has changed over time, the answer itself has remained largely the same: those who can afford to. This is no less true in 21st century Sheffield than it was in 17th century Surrey, where one of the first fights for space in Britain took place. The battleground? A vegetable patch.

The Diggers, seen by many as a precursor to the anarchist movement, argued that God had created 'Every single man, Male and Female' equal, and thus to buy or sell land was to take away a portion of creation from the common treasury. They envisioned a world free of property and markets, in which the land would be owned by none but be worked by all.

Though their community on a hill was destroyed in less than a year, the principles of freedom and solidarity that the Diggers espoused would continue to be central to struggles for space throughout history. Their great importance comes not from the success or failure of their movement, but from the question they posed: who does the land belong to?

This struggle was not like a conventional war

This is a question that challenges us not to see space as a static object, to which properties such as ownership can be assigned, but rather as an active subject that must be worked, lived on or enjoyed for it to have any meaning at all.

This vision of space without ownership continued at the fringes of society largely unchanged until the Industrial Revolution. The growth of cities in the mid-19th century meant that space was, for many, a luxury they could ill afford. Increasingly, the spaces in which people interacted were not public, but private. Pubs, factories and flats were all owned by the elite to be inhabited for their profit. Ironically, it was this forced proximity that helped to turn the question of belonging and ownership from a whisper into a shout - a shout that offered the choice of change or revolution.

The British government characteristically chose change and the council house was born. Though a modest stock existed prior to 1945, it was the Blitz that created the space for councils to turn the dream of the Diggers into a reality. Post-war estates like The Barbican in London or our very own Park Hill reflect the people's demand for spaces that were publicly-owned and belonged to those who used them. With shops, leisure facilities and other amenities, they were not merely places to eat and sleep.

This grandiose vision was ill-fated. Thatcher's election in '79 brought a perfect storm of market deregulation and northern deindustrialisation that would leave councils unable to properly support these communities. Those who could afford to bought their homes through the right to buy scheme - a scheme that has been abolished in both Scotland and Wales, only to be further extended in England by Theresa May's cabinet in 2016 - and those who could not were forced to accept lower living standards and social stigma. Home ownership was in and tenants' rights were out, leaving those in rented accommodation with fewer and fewer options to protect themselves and their families. It appeared that the struggle for space was well and truly over.

But this struggle was not like a conventional war. There was no peace treaty and the terms of engagement were written by the opposition. As the struggle died down, the assault on renters ramped up. Today, one in three privately-rented homes don't meet the government's Decent Homes Standard and one in six are dangerous to live in. Meanwhile rents rise year on year and gentrification turns what remaining working-class communities there are into Instagram spots for the middle classes. We cannot go on like this.

What can be done? For some, despair at the current situation has led them to found independent communes, living by ecological principles in close community with the earth. There are dozens of eco co-ops around the UK and many more across Europe, perhaps the most famous of which is Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen.

Founded in 1971, Christiania is a semi-autonomous region in Denmark's capital whose history demonstrates the extreme highs and extreme lows that such a community can experience. Since its inception, it has been run on a democratic, eco-friendly basis. Decisions require a consensus among residents (not just a majority), private ownership is currently banned and the community is as far as possible self-sufficient, making it a haven for radicals, artists and marginalised groups.

However, this has not come without a cost. Christiania's policy of allowing the sale of soft drugs has led it to become Denmark's largest site for the sale of cannabis, and this has proved a block for the more radical projects of the community at various points due to increased police presence and corresponding pushback from drug dealers. This conflict has helped right-wing members of parliament to further marginalise the community, forcing residents to purchase the land on which they live from the state, once again proving that whilst the land may belong to the people, it will always be owned by those who can exert the most force.

Whilst Christiania still offers an alternative way of life, it is understandable that many are not willing or able to give up everything to become part of something that would likely be destroyed if it ever reaches the point of posing a genuine threat to the establishment. So what can we do to join the fight right here in Sheffield? From Edward Carpenter's radical farming community in the 1880s to the Kinder Scout trespass that helped turn the Peak District into the UK's first designated national park, our city has a long history of engagement with space. One group that follows in that tradition today is ACORN.

ACORN has managed to achieve a great deal for such a young organisation

ACORN is a tenants' and community union that has spread across the UK since it began in Bristol in 2014. Its aims are simple: remind landlords and politicians that this land is our land, our homes belong to us, and we will not back down to power. By using direct action like sit-ins and pickets, ACORN has managed to achieve a great deal for such a young organisation and the Sheffield branch's campaigns were essential in securing a selective licensing contract for areas of Abbeydale Road and London Road, after the Council found that 75% of rented properties in the area had 'high-risk hazards'.

Despite resistance from landlords, ACORN continued to gather support for the contract in the affected region and were able to submit a formal response to the Council based on evidence gathered through door-knocking sessions. The scheme has set regulations for ensuring that any homes rented in the area live up to basic health and safety standards. It will also generate revenue for the Council through the sale of licenses to landlords who pass their tests.

ACORN is currently fighting to bring selective licensing to the whole of Sheffield, a move that would give a layer of security to some of those who are most marginalised in the struggle for space. It may not bring an end to the fight, but it would be a decisive blow to the most underhanded of our opponents and give us room to manoeuvre that we have not seen for nearly 50 years. Now is the time to act.

Join the struggle for space at acorntheunion.org.uk.

Isaac Hanson

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