Squatting became a criminal offence under new legislation on 1 September, and now the first fruits have been harvested, following a series of raids across the country, including a forced entry by police officers into a building on Brighton’s London Road and a police raid on a property in Leigh Road in Street, Somerset.
Under the new legislation, squatting has gone from a civil matter to a crime that carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, fines of up to £5,000, or both. The Government believes that the new squatting laws will ‘put power back into the hands of homeowners’.
Three men in Brighton, all in their twenties, unemployed, and of no fixed address, have been charged with squatting in a residential building, abstracting electricity, and obstructing a police officer. The three men are reported to have been found by officers in the attic of the building, and had glued themselves to a joist.
Five people in their teens and early twenties were arrested in Street at 9am on the day the law came into effect, and have been bailed until the 21st.
Further defiance of the new laws have been displayed by a woman in Newchapel, Wales, who has squatted in her home for 11 years, having raised her now teenage sons there. She claims to have paid council tax on the property ever since she moved into the cottage, and is adamant that any attempt to remove her and her family from the property would be a breach of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees a right to a personal and a family life. Article 8 has been called upon with increasing frequency in recent times by would-be evictees, making for frustrating and costly court battles for landlords.
Joseph Black, a spokesman for Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) spoke out regarding the arrests of the five squatters in Street, saying, “This sounds like a classic case of how this law is criminalising some of the more vulnerable members of our society.
“This country is in the middle of the worst housing crisis it has ever seen, and in the middle of it, the Government has announced legislation that will criminalise people and make them homeless at the same time.”
He said that the Government’s claim the law is protecting homeowners is invalidated by the fact that most squatters tend to move into properties that are empty and abandoned. He said, “They just don’t move into houses that other people live in.”
A squatter from Glastonbury, Keith Robin, says that the Government’s selling of social housing has made it difficult for people to afford homes. He said, “Squatting is a movement that has been driven by need.”
“There are hundreds of people around here squatting in houses who are now keeping their heads down and just hoping the police don’t realise that they are squatting.”
According to the Empty Homes Agency there are 720,000 empty properties in England and Wales. Both the Government and the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) estimate that there are 20,000 squatters in England and Wales (although, other squatters groups claim the true figure is far higher), a large proportion of which are in London. 60% are believed to reside in residential property.
The ASS say, “It makes no sense to criminalise squatters. People who are already vulnerable will either become criminals or will be forced to move onto the streets. A government that has committed to reducing spending will see a rise in demand for housing benefit and increased spending on public services corresponding to homeless individuals no longer being able to provide for themselves and instead being dependent on already strained public services and charities.
“Squatting is still legal in non-residential property. The new law also excludes people who have been given a licence to stay there (by someone with a right to do so) and those who are not living in the property. It is not clear how the police intend to work their way through these complexities, and ASS hope they will use caution rather than require court action against them.
“Squatting happens all over the world, whether it is legal or not. When there are empty properties and people needing them, there will be squatting.”
With the first skirmishes now over, it is evident that this is going to be an ongoing war that may ultimately prove futile, like the wars on terror and on drugs, as the squatters certainly don’t sound like they will ever surrender. It remains to be seen whether landlords will see any benefit from this new legislation.