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.

Compare with the Independent: See how much you could save by switching credit cards. Compare now

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Homer meets Lego Marge in the 25th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, set to air on 4 May
tv
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
film
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Telesales & Sales Support Apprentice

    £221.25 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a well established Inter...

    Client Relationship Manager - SQL, Python

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Client Relationship Manager - SQL...

    **Financial Services Tax**

    £35000 - £50000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: Take your chance to join the...

    Day In a Page

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal