Page last updated at 10:19 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 11:19 UK

Squatters in the stream

Raven's Ait
Raven's Ait in the River Thames

By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

A house might be a squat - even mansions in Bristol and London's Mayfair have been taken over recently. But one savvy group has now taken over an entire island on the Thames. Who are they and what do they want?

Raven's Ait stands proud of the Thames at Surbiton - downstream from Hampton Court Palace and upstream from Kingston upon Thames. A more middle-class suburban setting would be hard to find.

Margot in The Good Life
What might the Ledbetters think?

But it has a history of self-sufficiency, albeit fictional, as the setting for 1970s sitcom The Good Life.

Now the leafy Surrey town has been somewhat ruffled by a band of squatters who have taken up residence on the tiny isle after its previous occupants - a wedding venue company - went bust.

Armed with peace flags and banners urging people to "Reclaim your Raven's Ait", the group occupied the island in February and is now locked in a legal battle with the council over its status.

The squatters claim the ait - or small river island - is common land and intended for public use, something that is disputed by the local authority.

The 12 group members insist they have reclaimed the land for the people and want to to establish a self-sufficient, eco-friendly centre as a meeting point for community and environmental groups.

"We want to provide the community with a resource that they can use whenever they like," says one squatter, who calls himself Revolving Nick.

Raven't Ait squatters
Nick (left) discusses the group's aims with another resident

True to the spirit of these aims, curious locals have been extended an open invite to the ait - said to be where documents that led to the ratification of the Magna Carta were signed.

Those who make the journey find a clued-up bunch, who know property law and their rights. Some belong to the Circle Community, which has taken over a number of luxury properties, including a £6 million mansion in Mayfair.

Visitors are taken to the ait by pre-ordered ferry and are obliged to sign in on arrival. Those giving tours wear fluorescent jackets, and visitors are not permitted to drink alcohol. In fact, some squatters - who prefer the term caretakers - boast they hold official health and safety qualifications.

Inside the existing buildings, which consist of conference rooms, two bars, a four-bedroom house and two flats, the group has set up a make-shift eco-cinema, and offer massage and healing treatments, and yoga lessons. Outside, there is a permaculture garden, awnings for performances and a tree house for children.

As an evening drumming session begins, the Surrey island feels more Glastonbury than Surbiton.

'Ends justify means'

Wandering the gardens, Nick, a gregarious 37-year-old father-of-two, explains how he was first to arrive on the island after learning it was vacant while living nearby on his sister's boat.

Drummers on Raven's Ait
A jamming session in the garden

He describes how he followed the usual squatting process of entering, securing the building and registering with service providers.

Such occupation of empty properties is a civil, not a criminal, matter in England and Wales, unless entry is forced. But if the squatters commit offences such as theft or criminal damage, then the police can act.

The Raven's Ait group remains unapologetic.

"I always say my ends justify the means," says Nick. "There are thousands of empty properties all over the country. We are making use of the buildings."

The squatters also argue they provide low-cost security and maintenance, and Nick dismisses claims that those on the island have opted out of work and community life.

"I work bloody hard," he says. "Always trying to encourage those [green and community] ideas - I just may not have money or goods to show that I have been working hard."

Fell into it

The island's residents are an eclectic mix, consisting of former boat dwellers, eco-activists and other serial squatters. Some are dressed in buccaneer style, complete with hoop earring and boots, while others are more conservatively attired.

Richard Maggs
When we are living somewhere we attempt to leave the site better than it was before
Richard Maggs

Among them is 28-year-old Richard Maggs - or Rick - for whom squatting became an unintended way of life.

He spends his summers helping with building work at festivals, but during winter he hunts for somewhere dry to sleep. Although he paid rent for 10 years, he moved into his first squat after visiting one and learning of a spare room.

"It was a complete accident," he says. "I think for the majority of people it is an accident. If you don't have a degree or such things, I think many of the things you end up doing in life are accidents."

Rick, who says most vacant properties can be spotted while travelling around by bus, insists squatters are rarely troublemakers and can help maintain empty buildings.

"When we are living somewhere we attempt to leave the site better than it was before," he says.

Dispute resolved?

Kingston Council does not agree, and has served the Raven's Ait group with an eviction order. It wants them to leave "peacefully, without causing damage to the island", a spokeswoman says.

Private property sign
The island was popular for weddings

However, there are signs the dispute between the squatters and the council could soon be over.

Nick says the squatters plan to leave in a few weeks to establish "a steering group to keep the island for community use".

Most surprisingly, perhaps, the council also indicates it would consider proposals put forward by the group once the island has been vacated.

There is a small chance, therefore, that the squatters of Raven's Ait may end up not being squatters at all, but genuine caretakers of the island.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I used to live in a road near Raven's Ait. I am almost 100% sure that, 30 years ago, the building occupied was owned by the then Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) and used as an educational and recreational resource for, often deprived, inner London children. Must have got flogged by Thatcher's mob. Am glad it is in the news... maybe it will be reclaimed for its original intention.
McCatllar, London

During the late 80s I was employed by a local authority, and we became responsible for any temp stop-gap in security provision. The first five buildings we covered were HUGE former children's homes and special needs activity centres. One was a B-listed Victorian mansion in a very prestigious area, with original marble lined conservatory - empty nine years and in good order (sold to a developer for £90k), and a listed Georgian terraced house empty 13 years - now restored by the EU, boarded up since 2001. Many of these public assets, year after year, had funds assigned for their repair, but had little to no actually expenditure for this purpose. Squatters? The Georgian house had an old shy black and white cat named Sophia, who disappeared during the renovation work. All staff suggestions of ways in which the public could use these properties was greeted with a stony silence.
Alec McGowan, Edinburgh UK

Why is council is going to consider the proposals of the squatters AFTER they leave? So the squatters leave and the place is ruined by vandals and then the council will probably expect whoever takes it on to do the repairs. There is no logic. These folk are, in my humble opinion, actually serving the community by being there, they are taking care of the place and are providing all these other "fringe benefits". Leave them alone.
Sharon, Surrey

Whilst I would normally support any effort to utilise empty sites, in a number of cases squatters occupy temporarily empty buildings - consider how angry you would be if you left your house for six months for a trip around the world, only to come home to find a now (legally fallible) "section 6" notice pinned to your door, and with a long court battle ahead of you? Whilst squatters may at times be morally valid in their actions, as could be argued in this case, when private residences are invaded I believe it is totally unacceptable - it is tantamount to theft, and should be treated as a criminal, rather than a civil matter.
Vincent, Tunbridge Wells

Surbiton's association with fictional self-sufficiency is something of a myth. The residents were apparently too much like Margot to let the BBC dig up one of their neat suburban gardens for The Good Life - it was actually filmed in Northwood, Middlesex (Kewferry Road). But it appears that attitudes might have moved on since then - good for Surbiton.
Carl Shillito, Denham, Bucks

Apparently the first thing these people did on arrival was make an inventory and put valuable equipment in a safe, dry area. They sound pretty responsible and sensible to me. I would like to visit.
Roger, Eastbourne

The council's attitude reminds me of my two young nieces. One left a toy she owned ignored and forgotten in a corner but as soon as her sister went to play with it she kicked up an almighty tantrum until she got it back. Seconds later it was back ignored in the corner.
Chris, Belfast

Before it became a wedding venue the island used to be owned by the Sea Cadets, and in the 70s I went on a residential course there. I was sad to see it become a wedding centre and would welcome a return to its previous incarnation as a resource to teach children about the river, sailing and such like.
Trevor, London, UK

I am an estate agent and I hate squatters. They regularly squat private empty houses in my area. One example recently was a house owned by a retired gentlemen whose elderly mother had just passed away. The house was full of sentimental possessions which he could not then access. It took over two months to evict them and during that period the house and the possessions were badly damaged - certainly not leaving it in better condition that it was originally. How can anyone have the right to enter and live in someone else's property, private or council owned?
Chris, London

I have a lot of sympathy with people who end up squatting through being homeless or falling on hard times. But these people appear full time squatters who move from place to place and make no effort to make a contribution to society (I am sure they make use of hospitals etc paid for by the rest of us). An eco community is not a contribution.
Alan, Kent

Good luck to them, I say. It's a crying shame that there are homeless people all over the place, and property and homes going to rack and ruin for want of the right effort to put the two together. This is exactly what squatting should be about... And if this lot can make a common use of the island for the general public, even better. Let's hope the council understands that it's best to come to a quick solution rather than waste any more public money on trying to put a stop to this potentially worthy group.
Nic, London

I stayed on this fantastic little island when i was 11 years old, exactly 50 years ago. I was a member of the sea cadets and lived in Battersea. We spent a weekend sailing and learning naval crafts - a beautiful haven, which at the time seemed a thousand miles from south London. I am sure it was owned by the state at this time and wouldn't it be lovely to be used for this type of recreation again.
Charlie Prowse, Camelford, Cornwall, UK

If the squatters claim the ait is common land and intended for public use, then why do they insist visitors sign in and restrict their activities? It sounds like they're not treating it as common land but private property.
Richard, London

You can feel a great deal of sympathy for this kind of protest. There is a disturbing lack of social housing, and although housing associations and councils do what they can, the need out numbers supply. At the same time many thousands of homes are empty and many thousands of plots of land are held by big business and property developers in land banks. Surely in the 21st century the government can address housing, which after all can be viewed as the one of the most basic of human needs.
Don Shaw-Case, Ramsgate, Kent

I live about 300 metres from Raven's Ait and think the wedding venue was a desecration and the squatters' ideas are a little misplaced. This island isn't just a place where pre-Magna Carta documents were signed, but where early English kings were crowned. Sadly, the council transplanted the Coronation Stone to an anonymous spot in its own grounds. I'd like to see it returned to its home and the island properly recognised as an integral part of English history, perhaps with a visitor centre - NOT a yoga centre, which can go anywhere, frankly...
Simon, Surbiton

There is a whole village of several hundred houses, big four-bed detached ones, a few miles from me in ex-RAF Newton. The whole village has been empty for 20 years, every day I see the houses slowly decay. It's the saddest thing.
Jason Hall, Notts

Where I live there is nearly a whole estate that is vacant and derelict, and we have a large homeless population I have often wondered why the council don't open them up for use as public housing as they are not being used or being maintained they are slowly going to ruin. As long as they are monitored to make sure no damage has been caused what's the problem?
Claire, Yorkshire

Good for them. Too often properties are left vacant by local councils to fall into disrepair. Rather these people putting the island to good use and for a valid purpose.
William Boyle, Ilfracombe

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