In September the Government criminalised squatting in residential buildings making it illegal for this country’s 40,000 homeless families to squat any of our 300,000 long-term empty residential premises. The law was opposed by over 90% of people who responded to the Governments consultation as well as hundreds of leading Police and Judiciary who stated that existing fast track eviction laws adequately protected homeowners.
New laws being debated now seeks to do the same in non – residential / commercial buildings. Making temporary shelter in an empty office block will cease to be a civil matter to be resolved by the courts and will become an arrestable offence. Below are just some of the reasons why this will affect all of us.
You Want Lower Rent and Lower House Prices
In Britain 70% of the land is owned by 0.4% of the population. A ban on squatting will further concentrate property ownership leading to higher rent and higher property prices. This will affect middle Britain whilst benefiting a minority of landowners. Private companies often own lots of land and unused buildings which they speculate on for decades at a time. This ‘false scarcity’ keeps property prices high and at the same time leads to market failure and a housing crisis for the majority of British people.
You are struggling to meet Rent or Mortgage Payments
Do you have a low income? Was the price of your education a lifetime of debt? Is your rent increasing along with the money you owe? Are you part of the 1.7 million people
waiting on a housing list? Maybe you are, or have at some time been part of “the hidden homeless” that has to rely on friends and family for accommodation? Keeping a roof over your head is not just a concern for squatters but for most ordinary people today. We are already seeing record levels of unemployment evictions and homelessness. At the same time the Government is selling off low cost social housing and cutting housing benefit for the under 25’s. And it doesn’t stop there. Commentators are predicting a boom in evictions in homelessness as the Government announces that it is to kick homeless families out of social housing after 1 year. More on that here.
It would make the defence by local communities of their urban heritage a crime
Occupying space to protect it as an act of protest against unwanted developments – a long held tactic used by civil society to defend sites of heritage and natural beauty - could see you banged up. More on that here.
You Don’t Want to Experience Rising Homelessness
Homelessness in many areas of the UK is rising sharply with 50,000 families and individuals in need of emergency accommodation in 2012 (a 25 percent rise since 2009).
Research from homeless charity Crisis in 2011 shows that
- 40% of single homeless people have squatted at some time
- 6% of the current homeless population are currently squatting
- 41% of homeless squatters report mental health needs
- 34% have been in care
- 42% have physical ill health or a disability
- 47% have experienced drug dependency
- 21% are self- harming
- 15% have learning disability
- 90% are sleeping rough
[Reeve, Kesia. (2011). Squatting: A Homelessness Issue - An Evidence Review. Available: http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Crisis_SquattingReport_SEPT2011.pdf. Last accessed 9th September 2012.]
These are the people whom the Government seeks to further marginalise, fine, and brutalise with the prison system.
You are Worried about Tenants Rights
The new squatting laws do not extend to ‘a person holding over after the end of a lease or license’. That means someone who has not left after their notice period cant be arrested by the police as ‘squatters’. On the ground however this is not secure. Casualised tenancies such as those given by Camelot and other ‘property guardians’ which only give a 2 wk notice period tenancy termination may well be able to label their tenants as ‘squatters’ because the licences the hold is classed as ‘an excluded license’. Property guardianship is a growth industry that has been lobbying hard for the criminalisation of squatting. Why would they do this when they market themselves as protecting homes against squatters. Could it be that they intend to profit from an increasingly liberalised landscape of housing regulation in which tenants have no right and can be evicted easily? More on this here.
People who decide to deal directly with a private landlord in an effort to avoid massive agency costs may end up on cash in hand agreements with Landlords who seek to avoid legal obligations. As unlicensed tenants they could end up in jail if things turn sour. Given the lack of understanding over the new laws (even by the Police who I know from first hand accounts have been misusing existing squat laws to arrest people in commercial buildings) many tenants are probably being forced out of homes under the threat along that they will be arrested as squatters.
Under the 2012 Act, cash-in-hand rental agreements would allow landlords to threaten tenants with arrest by reporting them as squatters given that there would be no proof that they are tenants engage in unlawful eviction, harass the tenant and would require ‘notice to quit’ (eviction notice) uphold legal obligations on the condition of the building.
[p.7. ‘Law of the Land; An Idiots Guide to Section 144 Criminalising Squatting in Residential Premises & How to Fight Back Against the Unjust Attack on the Vulnerable’ (Matthew Varnham, Aug. 2012)]
You Are an Activist, Campaigner or Member of Civil Society
The commercial property where I live belongs to a tax dodger who owns many
buildings. He left it empty for 12 years. Much to the delight of the local residents we opened the space up to make it a home for 15 people to live and many more to use for open days, workshop, film screening and events.
If the use of empty non-residential buildings is made illegal it will spell and end to countless community hubs as well as social centres and even convergence centres where activists to reside during international summits. Cuts Cafes have recently been popping up across the country in response to austerity. These too will be a thing of the past. Temporary autonomous spaces like these are a key part of civil society and a healthy democracy because they give activists a place to meet, hold talks and workshops, make banners and plan actions and demonstrations. The Government knows this very well and does not want people to organise against things like the G8 summit happening on London next year.
Outrageously, Mike Weatherly, Conservative MP for Brighton was recently quoted as saying:
“It’s a good law, and those who says it’s not are just anarchists”
“These are anti-capitalist people and they shouldn’t be able to get away with it”
Such statements imply that being anti-capitalist or subscribing to the political philosophy of anarchism is a crime in itself. Most squatters are ordinary people on low income. Some are anarchists and are peaceful community minded people. If you don’t believe me go to The Anarchist Book Fair and share a cup of tea with some of them. The campaign to vilify squatters is also one of political persecution that leads to increased police powers, surveillance and arrest. More broadly it is a campaign against organised civil society in the face of increasing inequality.
You Support the Arts and Countercultural Activities
I squat in London because I am a self-employed performer and a part time Masters student. If they criminalise squatting I don’t know how I can continue living here. Many of the performers you see in theatres, performing in pubs and clubs or named on your CD collection will have at some time squatted. Would the punk movement and all that came out of it have happened without squats? Annie Lenox and her keyboardist were able to save for the keyboard that they wrote ‘Sweet Dreams’ on because they were squatting. There are countless other examples like this.
A friend of mine Dave Wybrow is the Director of the Cockpit Theatre, Westminster. He has worked for many years in with comedians, actors, theatre companies, dancers and musicians. He also used to squat for 10 years in the 70’s. Last year he visited the squat where I lived and told me this:
“The reason that London is the cultural capital of the world is an inheritance from past decades when there were places where young people could have some breathing space to be creative. Squatting was much easier then. I don’t think our place as the cultural capital can continue the way things are going.”
I think the new laws on squatting are part of the processes of gentrification that are bleaching our towns and cities.
A Ban on Squatting Commercial Properties Will Benefit You If…
You are a business or landlord that has a non –residential building you have left empty and wish to speculate on. Most squatters will seek to negotiate and agreed leave time, nominal rent or terms of occupation. But you won’t have to bother with this. The circumstances of the squatters and the scheduling of a notified eviction date will not be necessary. You can save money spent on evicting them with legal means. Instead the tax payer can pay for the police to arrest them, provide them housing benefit or even possibly imprison them. You may never have to see the face of the person sat in jail for the crime of making a temporary shelter in your empty building. You can continue to leave it (plus any other properties you own) out of use for decades to come.
If you think that occupying long-term residential or commercial building is wrong lobby your MP, distribute this article encouraging others to campaign around it and be proactive in protecting the vulnerable.