There are hundreds of thousands of empty properties in the UK – 650,000 in England alone. We should be seizing empty properties and giving them to people who need them, not locking up people for wanting a place to live.
People are broke and evicted. Meanwhile, countless homes sit unused and empty, or abandoned…some people take matters into their own hands and live as squatters. But now the outraged authorities are fighting back against the squatter scourge, the UK’s New Left Project writes:
The traditional view that the Tories are the party of the landed classes was built on solid bedrock. The last time they were in power they orchestrated the largest land-grab in living memory – the ‘right to buy’ – through which council housing passed to property magnates and buy-to-let landlords. This time around, spurred on by misleading articles in the right-wing media, they’ve announced plans to make squatting illegal and to allow landlords to forcibly evict people – whether squatters or tenant – backed up by the iron fist of the law. It is a calculated effort to empower those who own more property than they can ever use at the expense of those who have nothing.
Barry Wilton of SQUASH, a campaign group fighting the proposals, believes that the government is trying to pre-empt a wave of squatting brought about by spending cuts and rising unemployment. “They [the government] know that the financial crisis will lead to thousands of ordinary people being evicted for rent arrears or for getting behind with their mortgage,” he says. “With hundreds of thousands of empty properties gathering dust, it’s obvious that many of those people will turn to squatting as a legitimate reaction to a crisis they didn’t cause.”
Given the range of powers available to owner-occupiers and non-residential occupiers, it makes no sense for even the most desperate of squatters to move into a house which is clearly lived in. Instead, squatters are more likely to move into abandoned buildings owned by commercial or absentee landlords. Unlike owner-occupiers, owners of commercial properties can’t force their way back in because Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offense for non-residents to use violence to enter a property where someone inside is opposed to their entry.
This law was brought in to give tenants protection from landlords, a fact of which the government is well aware. Crispin Blunt, the Prisons Minister, explained that although Section 6 “was designed to stop unscrupulous landlords from using violence to evict legitimate tenants,” he and his colleagues were considering ways to give “give non-residential property owners the same rights as displaced residential occupiers to break back into their property.” Instead of bringing both parties before a judge, which gives tenants a chance to prove they’ve the right to be there, often-complex housing issues would be dealt with on the doorstep, further inflaming an already heated situation.
Wilton argues that removing these protections will prove impractical. “You can imagine the situation,” he says. “The police turn up at the door and are told that the occupier is a squatter and asked to get them out. They’re expected, with no training, to decide who is right and who is wrong, and to act accordingly.” It’s a recipe for disaster, which may explain why the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police opposed similar plans in the early 1990s.
It is difficult not to view these proposals as ideologically driven. This is, after all, a government which is relying on stories it knows are bogus to force through changes it accepts will only hurt vulnerable people. There are hundreds of thousands of empty properties in the UK – 650,000 in England alone, according to the Empty Homes Association. Is it really so bad if people put them to more productive use than their owners, especially if they’d otherwise require housing benefit or council housing?
“Ultimately,” says Wilton, “squatters are just stepping in to fill the gap brought about by a failure of both Tory and Labour governments to get to grips with the housing crisis. We should be seizing empty properties and giving them to people who need them, not locking up people for wanting a place to live.” That may be anathema to a party of inherited wealth and property, but it may well be the only equitable solution to this crisis which, we should remember, was caused by the very people that these new laws have been designed protect.