Into the housing wilderness step 15,000 squatters

Can't buy or rent? What are your rights if you go for occupation?

Gulliver Handley, 27, didn't have the money for a deposit to rent a flat, was unwilling to stay at home and unlikely to get housing help from the council.

So he decided to squat.

"Imagine going into a cold and dark building with broken windows. It's really nasty," he says. "But a week later it's a bustling, friendly place that's warm and happy. Nothing else comes close to that."

His partner, Jude Dutton, a 25-year-old business project manager, was also ready to fly the nest but found herself with few options. "I've always worked but I had neither the money to go travelling nor the ambition to go to university."

Some friends offered her a room in a squat, and she moved in.

In both cases, this was nearly three years ago. Although the experience brought them together, Jude and Gulliver have now been renting for six months. "Squatting," says Jude, "is not the easy life."

However, while most of us worry about getting a mortgage, or at least a decent roof over our heads, a small band still favour squatting. That is because some young adults and low-income families are now faced with inflated property prices, unsuitable council homes and swathes of empty buildings that have brought down the rented-housing stock. In this situation, they often see squatting as an interim way of finding shelter.

Most squats are in disused houses, offices or industrial buildings. If it can't be proved that the occupiers have entered a vacant premises by force, they can be brought to court only for a breach of civil law, rather than for having committed a criminal offence. A landlord who wants them out must prosecute them as trespassers. From then, it's usually only a matter of time before eviction.

Despite the absence of official statistics on the subject, the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASfS) estimates there are between 15,000 and 17,000 squatters in the UK today.

"In England and Wales, this is driven by a dire lack of housing and [great] need," says a spokesman. "A major problem is that when squatters eventually get housed by the council, they often go back to the squats as these provide much better conditions."

The common perception of squatting is of dirty people, noisy parties and crumbling buildings that depress property prices on the rest of the street.

However, this assumption was turned on its head last summer when the auctioneer Strettons sold a Grade II-listed building in London above its guide price because squatters had looked after it so well.

But while sympathisers argue that occupants are simply recycling an unused resource, many others consider them to be opportunist property robbers.

One landlord who asked to remain anonymous says he has faced countless complications with squatters.

"They were recently in [a property of mine] for six weeks. The law is traditionally on the side of the squatters who don't do anything, and the worst thing is that the police are unwilling to intervene."

Unwilling they may be, since anyone guilty of using force to enter vacant prem- ises can be charged with committing a criminal offence - even the police. This legislation, dating back to the Middle Ages, has been a useful tool for squatters who end up in court.

But Christopher Baker, deputy head barrister at Arden Chambers, argues that the law has been tightened in the past 10 to 15 years to favour the property owner. The loopholes no longer exist that used to allow squatters to stay put by declaring a blizzard of technically legal objections to eviction.

Likewise, court verdicts have now made it harder for squatters to persuade gas and electricity suppliers to connect them.

Most recently, a ruling by the European Court could mean that the British government ends up paying compensation to owners who lose control of their properties.

Mr Baker is sympathetic to the squatters' plight: "From the pattern of cases I've seen, they often have a genuine interest in the property and look after it."

Perhaps in response to changing attitudes, squatters have found a new way to legitimise their occupation - by acting as a security service for the owners.

Greg Scott Gurner, 30, set up the 491 Gallery in a long-disused warehouse in east London that is awaiting redevelopment. It has been registered as a company, a legal entity, and is now home to more than 25 people. The gallery hosts workshops, exhibitions and events, art and music studios and a cinema.

"It's a trade between us and the owner," says Mr Scott Gurner. "We've maintained and improved his building for eight years without him having to pay anything."

The organisation pays an annual £1 "peppercorn" rent to a landlord happy to have 491 Gallery on site.

"They are acting as cost- free security," says the landlord, who preferred to remain anonymous. "It is better for me to have an organisation in there, with a licence that can be terminated legally, than to go through the courts to get squatters out. They might as well make use of it and help us keep it secure."

OWNER OR OCCUPIER - WHO HAS THE LAW ON THEIR SIDE?

In English law, a squatter is a trespasser. This makes it a civil matter - a dispute between individuals.

Back in the 1970s, possession orders handed down by local courts could not be made against unnamed people. For years, this allowed squatters to move between houses so that named individuals weren't there when the bailiffs arrived to serve eviction orders. This rule has now been tightened up.

Another old rule - that, after 12 years' continuous occupation without permission, the squatter can become the effective owner - has also been changed. The rule no longer applies to registered land.

Only someone with an immediate right to possession can bring an eviction order against squatters.

If a tenancy, lease or licence has not yet legally ended, property owners cannot start proceedings until that date.

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