A community of squatters that has lived in a set of artists' flats in south London for more than 10 years is to be evicted today as part of a larger clampdown on the unauthorised occupation of the country's vacant properties. The local council will pay for "live-in guardians" to look after the flats until they are sold at auction.
Lambeth Council is to evict about 50 people from Clifton Mansions, a block of 22 flats in the centre of Brixton that has become known for housing alternative musicians and artists, including members of the Irish punk-folk band The Pogues and the Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller.
In an attempt to crack down on "anti-social behaviour" and provide what councillors call "vital funds" for the London borough of Lambeth, which has lost £37m of its government subsidy this year, all squatters at Clifton Mansions will be removed from their homes by bailiffs and police. The entire road will be sealed off for the eviction.
Tensions between the local authority and the squatters have been running high after it emerged that Lambeth has not yet sold the building and will have to pay a private company, Camelot Properties, to provide guardians to look after the flats until they are sold. The weekly management fee alone for a guardian can be £250, according to the company's website.
A spokeswoman for Lambeth Council insisted these costs would be minimal and recovered when the flats were sold. "As well as being occupied by unauthorised occupants, we believe these properties are attracting anti-social behaviour," she added. "We operate a zero tolerance approach to squatters and this case is no different."
Pete Hambly, 33, a guitar technician from Canada, has lived in the mansions rent-free for eight years. After overcoming debt, seeing a threefold increase in his disposable income since squatting and setting up a local music studio, he said he would be "working on a building site" if it wasn't for the flats.
In response to the council's claims of drug use at the block, he said: "People talk about there being a lot of drug use here, and there is some, but there is no dealing. There are families here and real friendships. We have looked after this place while the council have just left it abandoned for years."
Alex Morton, 22, a graphic design student at Camberwell University, said he had never thought about squatting before his friend offered him a room at the mansions. "All of the flats here are well maintained and looked after. I have turned my life around because of this place and it's part of London's history," he said. "There is so much homelessness and now the Government wants to throw us out of empty buildings to pay others to live here. It is insane."
Squatting is believed to be on the increase in the capital, with latest figures showing that the number of possession orders sought in London court's rose by 58 per cent between 2006 and 2010. Public consultation about plans to change squatting from a civil to a criminal offence will be carried out as part of the forthcoming criminal justice Bill, announced in March by David Cameron. The Prime Minister said at the time: "Anyone who has had squatters in their property will know how incredibly difficult it is to get them out, so we are proposing and will briefly consult on a criminal offence of squatting, to be introduced in this forthcoming Bill."
Leslie Morphy, chief executive of homeless charity Crisis, said: "Giving a criminal record to homeless people will do nothing to address the underlying issue that caused them to squat in the first place – homelessness and lack of affordable housing."
MAKING A STAND: CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
* A £6m mansion owned by the film director Guy Ritchie was taken over in February by about 12 squatters who said they were setting up a temporary school in the Grade I-listed property in Fitzrovia, central London.
* In March, a group called 'Topple the Tyrants' moved into a London house owned by one of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's sons. It promised to stay in the property until the asset was returned to the Libyan people.
* Riots flared after police raided a squat in the Bristol suburb of Stokes Croft, above, in May amid fears the occupants planned to petrol bomb a Tesco store. About 300 demonstrators battled the police over two days.
* A group called Transition Heathrow, which opposes the airport's proposed third runway, took over a building in nearby Sipson and lived there peacefully for a year. Police raided the squat the day before the royal wedding.