Squatting the Economy

Erika Rushton – Creative Economist – is currently working with Power To Change, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and a collection of local social entrepreneurs to launch KINDRED; providing support and money to increase the impact of socially-trading organisations in Liverpool City Region. Here she shares her thoughts on how Liverpool businesses have responded to the crisis, and how the system could make room for innovators.

‘Coronavirus and the Hierarchy of Need’ is a contemporary fantasy-turned-reality that is challenging economic theory at every level of Maslow’s triangle of human essentials. The creative first responders are waving flags and sending signals. Proffering patterns that lead anyone willing to be led into an alternative economy that, before we return to working for it, could be re-designed to work better for us all.

I spent my early years as a squatter, repurposing a derelict room, then house, with salvaged carpets, paint, furniture and a beautiful, if warped, parquet floor from a factory in Deptford. We fantasised and beautified first, plumbed and rewired later. Our food was collected from the bins behind the wholesale fruit and veg market. We knocked into next door to create a milk bar; across the road we held a nightclub; an old betting shop became City Racing Gallery.

For 100 years, creatives have moved into the empty spaces’ others have no use for, adapting to create an atmosphere – and then value. Persuading others to join in. Then come the authorities and agencies with their masterplans and strategic frameworks, looking for best value and a truly Gross Domestic Product. Owners of former liabilities are courted by developers, keen to harness culture for residential profit. The value creators rarely stack up. On eviction I moved to Liverpool.

But the occupation in Covid-19 is not, yet, an occupation of empty buildings or deserted spaces. It is an occupation of market failures. The entrepreneurs, creatives and community business are moving in, repurposing what they find. Making do and mend, in a DIY patchwork of activity until, like a quilt, they fit together to comfort and care for us despite our distance, isolation or lack of protective wear.

First to respond were the feeders. Alchemic Kitchen distributed soups and sandwiches; Squash Nutrition traded bread flour for sourdough starters; the Kazimier nightclub turned urban farm. Greens for Good has long advocated against global food supply chains that harm us sufficiently for those same chains to sell us cures. Now its kitchen Produce Pod and doorstep deliveries cater for the declining appetites in supermarket queues and profits. Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plans for a 15-minute city – where every Parisian resident can meet their essential needs in a short walk or bike ride – are in full dress rehearsal.

Next came the protectors. Sew Halton joined the national movement of women using lockdown to get their over-lockers out. They’re sewing scrubs in every imaginable textile, pattern and size, with a matching laundry bag to ensure anxious health and care workers don’t take coronavirus home to their families.

DoES Liverpool did not wait for a government contract, invitation, or permission to network everyone they knew with a digital printer. By week three they’d perfected their MPV, PPE, PVs (Minimum Viable Product for Personal Protective Equipment, Protective Visors) based on real-life feedback from key workers. Their production lines are staffed by those furloughed by privatised producers.

And where are their factories? Schools, workshops, and kitchen tables. Sales are direct to front-line staff, heart bypassing regional and national government’s ‘PPE Challenge’. Because what goes into Government stays in Government right now it seems. Micro-investors are found on Instagram and open source patterns  are outperforming the universities on KTPs (Knowledge Transfer Partnerships).

Were our anchor institutions – universities – too busy as property and profit developers to notice when the Women’s Budget Group found investment in care delivers a better return than construction?

Peloton changed gear. Fast off the blocks, it quickly found its slipstream collecting and delivering local goods and services, offering doorstep repairs and gifting bicycles to health and care workers as other modes of transport slowed. Peloton’s desire lines now span deserted roads, empty golf courses and precious parks, connecting producers and customers, equipping front line workers with DIY transport and offering lock-downers an HS2 simulation experience as they ride against the headwind on the waterfront for their hour.

Those master-planning our recovery could increase their self-esteem by asking us what we think of their ideas. Or they could gain our confidence by riding in the slipstream along our desire lines that are now traversing their economic ideologies.

Creative first responders included Liverpool’s Dead Pigeon Gallery, always first to find a vacant space and invite participation. Its North End sketch club exhibits submissions online daily, to the delight of contributors and followers. Timo Tierney of The Tea Street Band took The Florrie’s 70-strong Guitar Club online. Lisa Worth is Zooming love songs to our loved ones who need a virtual hug. Superstars charging £100 per ticket might be offended next year when we all want to watch from a safe distance and grab the mic to sing along. Under threat of spontaneous collaboration, the Arts Council did what the Art Council does best and held a funding competition.

Liverpool’s high risers are already looking for new content for the grade A offices and luxury apartments that scrape our sky and condition our air. But on the scrubby bits of land they rejected, good neighbours are delivering food to each other and applauding the NHS together, and Mersey Regeneration – two lads who taught themselves how to build houses on the internet – have employed their unemployed friends to build their first three homes on the end of their street. All sold, in advance, at an affordable price (meaning ‘what their neighbours could afford’).

Coming Home Liverpool is launching its first Buyers Club, so those without the privilege of rich parents or surplus income can avoid the poverty premium luxury apartments for rent. Now they can buy a house – at half the monthly rental price – with a mortgage the banks said, without a deposit, they could never afford.

Meanwhile, the leaders of our core cities have dusted off and disinfected their pre pandemic prospectus to return us to all we had, or didn’t have, before. The over familiar investment priorities will take them to the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy. Fully reinstate their self-esteem. But in the spotlight of government money social care is, once again, left in the wings.

From the top of their Maslow triangle our core city leaders may not have achieved self-actualisation or be accepting the facts. Brighthouse’s lights are off. Construction is headlining as Dire Straits. Our ‘anchor institutions’ are adrift and want a bail out. Amazon is not a river, it’s a tax leak. And first and second-generation migrants are disproportionately serving, and dying, on the coronavirus front lines.

The market, when and where it was needed most, failed us.

Grayson Perry said “developers should pay artists to live somewhere for 10 years rent free, as we are a very precious commodity” – able to create value anywhere. What if we had squatters’ rights? What if occupation led to continuation? What if the market failures were handed over to the creative responders? What if the social impact of our contributions determined post coronavirus investment? What if communities received a share whenever they created value?

What if the volunteers, imagineers and social pioneers are not evicted, but encouraged, to plumb and rewire their squats within the market failures exposed by Covid-19?

The creative first responders are waving flags and sending signals.

Follow their patterns.