By Jack Deacon
Squatting has taken place throughout human history, especially in times of crisis.
Image courtesy of Feral78
The chronic housing shortage after World War II saw families and returning soldiers hunting out empty buildings to occupy after their own properties were blown apart. The coalition government is now seeking to criminalize it, citing increasing concern about the “distress and misery that squatters can cause”.
Hove MP Mike Weatherly told BBC Radio Sussex that the criminalisation of squatting would benefit “everyone except the anarchists”, yet lawyers; housing charities; MPs; property consultants; activists; and artists have all expressed outrage at the coalition government’s attempt to sneak in an amendment to the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill.
The results of a government squatting consultation showed that 90% of responders were against any action being taken on squatting – of 2217 responders, 2126 were worried about the impact criminalising squatting would have.
Campaigners against the amendment to the squatting law believe that it would be inhumane to punish disadvantaged people seeking refuge with a fine of up to £5,000 or a one-year prison sentence; at times of mass unemployment, a criminal record would all but destroy the job prospects of a squatter.
Squatters Network of Brighton (SNOB) said: “Due to the current housing crisis, the criminalisation of squatting will only victimise the vulnerable in society, and force thousands of people into homelessness, marginalisation and institutionalisation.”
Media hostility and political antipathy towards squatting can lead people to assume squatters make a habit of moving into people’s houses while they’re on holiday and refusing to budge, but this is so often far from the truth.
The Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) said: “Media coverage of squatting tends to assume that property is owned by an individual, and they use the term ‘homeowner’ even when the property in question is not theirs, or anyone’s home. The vast majority of squatting takes place in property owned by institutions and left empty for a significant amount of time.”
Media coverage of squatting also frequently fails to acknowledge the fact that, under Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, it is already a criminal offence to squat someone’s home (interim possession orders (IPOs) are available for cases where squatting has recently been discovered).
The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University recently produced an enlightening report on the nature and extent of squatting. They found that squatters often have serious welfare needs: of the homeless squatters studied, 34% had been in care; 42% had physical ill health or a disability; and 41% reported mental health problems.
Conservative MP Grant Shapps nonetheless believes that it’s the property owners who are hard done by, and “too long the pain inflicted by squatters on law-abiding homeowners has been ignored”.
He went on to say: “The idea that squatting in some way offers a reasonable solution to the issue of homelessness is both false and cruel. Instead it keeps these vulnerable individuals away from the real help they need.”
Squatting is, though, the only choice for many people living on the streets. Another finding from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research’s study was that local authorities had been approached by 78% of the homeless people who squat, but had turned down the squatters because they were not deemed to be in priority need or were considered intentionally homeless.
With more than 900,000 empty properties in England (a Freedom of Information request found there are 1, 764 in Brighton and Hove alone), and 35,000 people predicted to be lose their homes between November and Christmas, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that people live in unoccupied buildings.
Councillor Bill Randall, Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council and a former chair of Shelter’s National Housing Aid Trust, recognises the struggle people face in finding accommodation.
Speaking after the latest official Rough Sleeper Count revealed that the number of rough sleepers found was 37, up from 14 the previous year, he said rent is “becoming unaffordable for many people on low incomes, and the forthcoming changes to housing benefit are likely to make things worse rather than better in this respect”.
He added: “What I find really galling in this context is the number of empty properties around the city. Our empty property team does a fantastic job, but it’s often an uphill battle because their hands are tied by legislation that is weighted too heavily in favour of property owners.”
Property owners’ role in the housing crisis has also been commented on by SNOB, who said: “The main people who will benefit from this law are not ordinary members of the public, but rich property speculators, registered in offshore tax havens. These people are artificially keeping property prices up for the entire population by deliberately keeping buildings empty.”
It’s believed by SNOB that by occupying these buildings, squatters are creating a fairer housing situation. Housing isn’t the only thing that would be affected by the criminalisation of squatting though; squats are also home to free libraries, art exhibitions, community projects and campaigns.
A squatter from Worthing, who wishes to be unnamed, said: “In Worthing we’ve set up squats to provide a space for people to learn about the G20 gatherings, attend gigs and meet like-minded people.
“All sorts of people squat: students; artists; activists; divorcees; and people with mental health problems who feel neglected by local authorities.”
The Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill – which the squatting law change has been tagged to – has only been voted on in the Commons so far, and SNOB is encouraging the public to lobby the House of Lords in order to stop the bill passing.