A recent spate of stories about homeowners having their houses squatted has shocked Londoners – and now the government is carrying out a consultation on making squatting a crime. So should squatting be made illegal? Read two very different takes on the matter.
Bromley Cllr. Tom Papworth (Lib Dem), director of policy at Liberal Vision
Squatting is often portrayed as a victimless crime. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Far from a Robin Hood act, redistributing property from rich to poor, it victimises ordinary people, such as the young couple in the news this month whose home was occupied days before they moved in; the wife was eight months pregnant and doctors feared for the wellbeing of her child. Where the properties of “institutions” are hit, they often belong to councils and housing associations that use the properties to house London’s most needy people. For example, in 2008 approximately 200 squatters took over around 40 flats on a council estate in Streatham Hill – costing the council an estimated £500,000 in rent and legal fees.
The squatters are rarely the most vulnerable people. I have met one who works for Transport for London; and another who is a well-educated, middleclass retiree. Shelter advises against squatting, and local authorities have a legal duty to house anybody who is genuinely homeless. The defence of squatting is frequently based on some counter-cultural philosophy, but one has to question a philosophy based on stealing property at others’ expense.
Squatting is a civil matter. Landlords must spend their own money on lengthy procedures to evict people who shouldn’t even be there. You would not expect to have to take civil action if somebody stole your car and took it for a joyride. It also means there is no disincentive for squatting in law, as there is for other forms of theft. Far from relieving our housing crisis, squatting exacerbates it. In the process, it causes untold distress for homeowners and pushes up rents for everybody. Squatting is far from victimless. It is high time it was made a crime.
Reuben Taylor of Squash, a group campaigning for squatters’ rights
The government wants to make squatting illegal. It’s an attack on homeless and vulnerable people, in the midst of one of the worst housing crises this country has faced. It’s set to weaken tenants’ rights against unscrupulous landlords, and to destroy a fundamental tactic of protest – occupation – thereby eroding our civil liberties.
The media has been full of scare stories of people’s homes being stolen. These tales seek to deliberately misrepresent and mislead. It’s already illegal to squat in the home that someone lives in. This has absolutely nothing to do with protecting homeowners; it is about extending the protections to cover property speculators who keep houses empty simply to up their profits, and it will be open to abuse by landlords who want a fast means to evict precarious tenants.
With 600,000 people facing some form of homelessness, and 700,000 properties lying empty in the UK, squatting is a solution that costs the taxpayer nothing. Criminalisation will pile a huge financial burden on to the police force, courts, housing system and homelessness providers – turning the state into a private security racket for wealthy landowners. As long as rent and mortgages continue to move further out of the reach of so many, no legislation will stop people from using abandoned buildings to house themselves. Instead it will result in already vulnerable people facing criminal charges simply for trying to keep a roof over their heads. We urge people to resist this attack, to defend their civil liberties, and to help save an important element of London’s social and cultural heritage.
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