Does the squatting law ‘loophole’ need closing?

In the past two months there has been a surge in reports of people squatting commercial properties, accompanied by calls from MPs to close this ‘loophole’ in the legislation. The migration has been caused by a change in the law making it illegal to squat in unoccupied residential properties. But is this migration really a bad thing?

Squatters Rights were introduced in 1977, when it was made illegal to threaten or use violence to enter a property when someone is present and opposes entry – the law was introduced to prevent landlords using violence to evict tenants.

In the 1980s activists deliberately picked disused council properties to squat, knowing that when they were evicted councils would be obligated to renovate the homes and make them available to people that needed them.

Contemporary squatters are still using squatting as a tool to prevent social injustice – in February, Lewisham Council were forced to withdraw five homes for sale after squatters occupied them, saying they should be used to house families in need.

Last month, 17 squatters moved in to Chelsea’s oldest pub, the Cross Keys, following its closure earlier this year, and are planning to reopen it as an art gallery and library.

Elsewhere, squatters who were dislodged by the law change occupied the Friern Library in Barnet, which had been closed because of council cuts, and have since re-opened the building for the public to use again.

Peter Phoenix, one of the activists helping to run Friern library, has encouraged squatters who have found themselves back on the streets following the change to attempt similar community projects where possible.

“There’s a mini refugee crisis created by the new law,” he said. “A silver lining out of a bad situation is we are getting migration from residential to non-residential buildings.

“You are seeing a move and a change happen. We are actively urging groups to set up more community squats in non-residential buildings.”

Since councils across the country announced the closure of many public libraries, they have been appealing for volunteers to help provide the services for free. Despite this, the council have launched eviction proceedings against the self-proclaimed ‘Community Librarians’.

However, because of the massive public support the squatters enjoy, coupled with a bungling council, Phoenix is optimistic about their chances in the case.

“I think we have got the best chance we have seen in many years,” he said. “They’ve made so many f*** ups…They have not provided title [deeds]. I have got a letter from the council on headed paper which says: ‘You can buy it for £400,000’.”

  • 40% of all homeless people have squatted, with 6% of people squatting on the night they were surveyed
  • Homeless people squat out of necessity, often as the only alternative to sleeping on the street
  • 78% of people who squat have approached their local council for help, but were offered no useable support
  • Everyone surveyed occupied empty, disused, or abandoned buildings – they were not living in other people’s homes

Since the law changed on September 1 there has been a crackdown on squatters who occupy residential homes, with 40 arrests and 12 convictions already.

The change means that the crime carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a £5,000 fine, and gives police powers to raid a property if they believe it contains squatters and remove them. However, even before the change it was illegal to occupy such properties unless they had no one living in them, and it’s still legal for someone to squat certain properties if they have a license to do so.

A spokesman for the Advisory Service for Squatters said that the change is making things difficult for people who are just trying to house themselves.

“There is no evidence that the properties they were in have been put to use since, nor that any more affordable and accessible housing has been produced. In fact housing costs, particularly in London continue to increase and benefit caps affect increasing numbers of people,” he said.

Given that specific instances of squatting can enjoy support from local communities, it’s interesting to note that the government struggled to find support for the law change. The consultation process showed that neither the Law Society, Criminal Bar Association, nor the Metropolitan Police supported the proposals.

Since it was passed, there has been much criticism of the way the law is being implemented. The advisory service spokesman said the police have acted in a fairly arbitrary manner, and sometimes appear to have made just up their own mind that the occupiers were trespassing (against whom not always being clear).

He picked out several examples where the police appear to have misunderstood the details of the new law: “Some police have somehow not understood that a funeral parlour is not residential, have threatened people with arrest who were not living or intending to live to live in the property and many police are confused about the part of the law which says that people who have had a licence are not committing an offence.”

Research conducted by the Centre for Economic & Social Research (CESR) as part of the government consultation into the law change revealed that squatters are among the most vulnerable of all homeless people.

St Mungo’s Trust, a charity dedicated to helping homeless people find accommodation, says that most people squat because they are homeless – if homelessness is addressed through better provision of services and support they will no longer squat.

Judith Higgin, media manager at St Mungo’s said: “Criminalising people who have no home is not something we would condone, but the idea is that people are helped before they have to take emergency measures.”

So is the migration to commercial properties we’re seeing really the result of a ‘loophole’ in the law? If these people shouldn’t be occupying commercial properties, where should they go at night?

  • The government estimates that there are 20,000 squatters in the UK, but squatting groups say the real total is much higher.
  • The number of people on local authority housing lists has nearly doubled since 1997 to 5million, and there are an estimated 650,000 empty properties in the UK.
  • Most squatters live in London, and before September 1 around 60% lived in residential properties.Many squatters have occupied the same property for many years (e.g. lifestyle squatters)
  • Many squatters have occupied the same property for many years (e.g. lifestyle squatters)

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