Fresh policy brings in the bailiffs

THE BAILIFFS had five evictions to carry out in Southwark, south London, yesterday morning. Mobile phone in hand in case of any last-minute court reprieves, they moved systematically from block to block, gaining entrance by forcing doors, clambering through windows and chiselling away at locks.

Most occupants had left before they arrived, but in one flat an illegal occupier protested vehemently as she cleared out her furniture. As with the majority of evictions there was no violence.

In another flat the occupants clearly did not believe that after all the warning letters, this time the council was not bluffing. The food in the fridge, the television, beds and other furniture all suggested the tenants still thought it was their home. But they would return to find the council's joiner had replaced the locks.

It is a slack week for the bailiffs as the Christmas break means fewer warrants for evictions have come through. But with Southwark applying for possession orders on 100 properties a week, it promises to get busier. If tenants turn up at special hearings held on Wednesdays, they stand a good chance of getting the possession order suspended in return for promising to pay off some of the arrears. If they fail to keep to the terms of the order Southwark will proceed to evict without having to go back to court.

'There has been a history of ducking and diving in Southwark, of not paying what you can get away with,' said Mike Gibson, the chairman of Southwark council's housing committee. 'In order to get across the message that we are serious we have no alternative to eviction.'

Gone are the ruling Labour group's policies of the mid-Eighties, which refused to countenance evicting squatters or tenants in arrears. With the borough no longer meriting the title 'squatter's paradise', those intent on squatting have to move to other boroughs.

'Our squatting used to be a form of social Darwinism, with fit young men taking over properties that were needed more by teenage mothers with children,' said Mr Gibson.

'For the first time in about five years we can definitely offer homeless families a home - it won't be Buckingham Palace, more likely the North Peckham Estate - but it will be a home rather than bed and breakfast.'

(Photograph omitted)