Inside Aqua House – Peterborough Squatters Autonomy

by diarmuidmcdonald

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet the occupiers of Aqua House, a former Environment Agency building in Peterborough left derelict since 2012, and since last Saturday the site of the only protest I have ever noticed in this city. If you have been anywhere near town bridge in the past week you will already be familiar with the banners and flags flying above Aqua House; targeting the newly elected Conservative Government and listing demands for social housing. Driving past, one can only speculate who the masked figures on the balcony are, or what they believe in. After spending two hours inside the building it dawned on me that Peterborough Squatters Autonomy (PSA) are alarmingly ordinary people. But I think that might just be the point.

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Accommodating over one hundred members PSA operate a non-hierarchal internal structure, all decisions are the result of deliberation and subsequent voting. Court is held regularly to discuss and determine all aspects of the groups internal and external actions. Maintaining the individual integrity of group members seems to be important to PSA; when asked how they would identify themselves ideologically, two of the three opted to simply describe themselves as “activists”.

In general the group stands in opposition to the governments stance towards it’s own citizens, which PSA perceive as bordering the nefarious to say the least. The group has made statements targeting the callous construction of luxury river-side flats in the city, despite the ongoing issues faced by many in Peterborough of lack of affordable housing and homelessness. Aqua House is surrounded by an existing block of modern flats, a construction site where more luxury housing is currently being erected, and an abandoned wasteland which is presumably next in line for development. From the roof of the building you get the impression of a frontline, as the tide of gentrification can be seen in all directions. Aqua House itself has yet to be sold to private developers, and in Feb 2014 was bought by the council for £748,000. Given it’s location the site appears to be a perfect opportunity for developers planning to construct expensive living spaces out of financial reach for the majority of city residents. With it’s riverside views and relative proximity to the railway station, it seems inevitable that any construction on this site is destined to be occupied by wealthy commuters working in London. It is hard to imagine such projects having any benefit to those in Peterborough who are in need of adequate housing, or simply shelter.

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Predictably, public reaction to PSA has been mixed. The group state that members of the public have been generous in their food donations to the group, a decent portion of which PSA utilises in feeding Peterborough’s homeless. The group’s Facebook page has been steadily gathering ‘likes’ and has received expressions of solidarity from a number of local residents. Although PSA perceive the majority of public reaction towards their cause as positive, they claim to have received threats from individuals and groups, notably the English Defence League (EDL). One member explained to me how these threats tied into PSA’s reluctance to reveal the identities of it’s members, stating that “we are not covering our faces to hide ourselves from what we are doing, it is for our protection”, a necessary precaution as she believes that her actions have put her in “personal danger”.

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Although the interior of the building shows visible signs of distress, the squatters are keen to stress that these damaged areas (radiators have been looted from some rooms) are not the result of their protest. A sign in the front entrance to the building, placed by PSA themselves reads: “No graffiti No damage Clean up mess if made Be kind”. There is no evidence of criminal damage to the building cause by the squatters.

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Following the court hearing on Wednesday (27th May) an interim possession order has been granted to the council, who will undoubtably take action to remove the group in the coming days. PSA claim that this is just the beginning of their activities in Peterborough, and irrespective of eviction procedures brought against them they are “here for the long run”.

Unsurprisingly there is more to the events at Aqua House than can be discerned by a mere passer by. What interests me (and always has in these situations) are the people involved, ordinary people who have chosen to engage in extraordinary acts. The activists you see on the balcony are fundamentally no different than you or I. They have beliefs and convictions as we all do, although unlike the majority of UK citizens, PSA have put their beliefs into action. This is always liable to lead to scorn, resentment and derision from passers by, ranging from those who’s interests are affected and those who’s are not. But the same drivers who curse the squatters from their steering wheel will have likely walked past members of PSA in the street at some other time. Made eye contact. Thought nothing of it. As life goes on.

I never did ask their names, but I expect they have ordinary names just like you and I. Except perhaps not like me, because I have a ridiculous name.

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Disclaimer. I remain independent on this issue, and am not a member of, or representative for, Peterborough Squatters Autonomy. For more information on the group please see their Facebook page.

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