When the squalors moved in next door: As the Government plans to make squatting a crime, Laura Croker recalls her own experience

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WE HAD stayed up to chortle over Where Eagles Dare. This film is a household joke and we always watch it avidly, laughing at the improbable manner in which Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood enter and leave the schloss.

How ironic that at the same time four young lads were effecting their own commando sortie only yards from our window. Much later, in bed, I heard the thud of drums close by and sleepily asked my husband if he had left the car radio on. He raised the curtain and discovered that the empty house next door had come alive - lights on in every room, shouting, dogs barking and unspeakable music blaring out. The squatters had arrived.

The house next door had been empty for more than a year and was in a sorry state. It is owned by British Gas, who bought it from one of their employees in a relocation arrangement. Fences had fallen, trees been blown over and large brown rats lived securely under its shed and made frequent and alarming forays to my bird-table. My letters to the agents had elicited no response.

The following morning was a whirl. I did the school run, informed the estate agents, spoke to the police, the vicar, the neighbours, and every now and then peered out of my window to try and catch sight of the squatters. Previously the Environmental Health Department had put rat poison in the garden, and I was concerned in case there were squatter children who might find this, so around midday I rang the doorbell. No one answered, so I left a note.

We returned to see some young lads in the next door driveway. 'I can see the squalors]' exclaimed my four-year-old daughter.

Later, the man from British Gas stood outside the house conferring with the agents, while music blared from all the open windows and various young people came and went. Notices had appeared on the windows listing the squatters' rights and the legal consequences should anyone try to violate them.

The owners seemed genuinely concerned to deal legally and decently with the problem, and visited me and other neighbours to hear our comments. Our conversation was interrupted by a young, blond boy who knocked and asked to borrow a hammer and saw, offering his watch as surety. I politely declined, but found out later that he had tried to help himself from a neighbour's garage. At this point I realised that my sympathy for these youngsters was going to have to be tempered.

The squatters had a pathetic bravado. They arose around midday and stood in the drive, wearing dressing gowns. A large smiling face cartoon appeared on the hall window bearing the caption 'Our House'.

After three days I decided to talk to them, with the excuse that as they had missed the dustmen they might like some bin bags. There were four of them, and two dogs. I was unperturbed by the boys, but fearful of the dogs, uncollared, big and bouncy. We talked amid the broken glass and rubbish in the driveway. The boys, reasonably healthy and dressed in de rigueur casuals, were in their teens or early twenties and local, from towns such as Weybridge and Woking. For various reasons they could not or would not live at home, could not or would not work, and derided places such as the YMCA.

I told them about a local association that helps house the single homeless and they seemed interested. I thanked them for keeping the music down, we exchanged names and I left. When I returned home later an empty milk carton had been rather pointedly tossed into my garden. I guessed that the bin bags weren't needed.

That afternoon everything escalated. A rumour had reached the police that tickets were being sold for a rave next door, and so the electricity supply was to be disconnected. The police arrived and it transpired that two boys were at the police station, their car impounded.

The electricity men started digging up the road with pickaxes, even though it was six o'clock on a bank holiday Friday. Finally the cable was cut and, to shouts from the house of 'Bastards', the music died and the lights went out.

Around midnight two of the boys knocked on our door and asked what had happened. They had just left the police station and could not understand where their friends were or why the house was in darkness. We told them what we knew, and they set off with just enough petrol to scour the local police stations in search of the other two.

Around 5am we were awakened to the sound of banging. It was the police, who apparently had the boys in custody. They had put their gear in the garage and were securing the house.

During the morning the boys collected their gear, their car speakers still blaring. I do not know where they went.

For many reasons it has been a shocking experience. It could have been much worse: all parties involved acted with decorum. But the real lesson has been the fragility of parenthood. Do those boys have crushed, heartbroken parents who cannot cope with them, or uncaring families who do not want to know? I doubt there is anybody who will really help them, least of all themselves.

The Home Office is discussing legislation against squatting, and I wonder how effective it will be. Certainly my impression was that the apparent inability of the police to do much about the situation gave an added fillip to the notion of squatting. It might be that if squatting were a criminal offence potential squatters would think twice before taking over somebody else's house.

But there is an inescapable bottom line. I didn't like the squatters' dogs or their noise, and I felt threatened by their presence, yet there is something unpalatable about a detached, five-bedroom house being left empty, neglected and unwanted for months, while homeless people roam the streets.