Property: 'Get the hell out of my house!'

Alternatively, a more constructive line with squatters may benefit the home owner, writes Felicity Cannell
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Squatters have always had a bad press, seen as parasites at best and aggressive vandals at worst. The Queen famously suffered one at Sandringham. So too did the Sultan of Brunei, in his Kensington mansion.

But this isn't just a rich person's problem, and you don't need to be a billionaire with vast estates of empty rooms to be affected. Ordinary homeowners who happen, for whatever reason, to have left a home empty, have returned to find that squatters have moved in.

Before you rush to put new locks on your garden shed, the truth is that these days squatting is mostly confined to council-owned properties; the invasion of private homes was more common in the late 1970s and 1980s. This is because, in 1977, councils were given extraordinary powers to evict unauthorised non-paying occupants and the squatters moved on to the private sector. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act redressed the balance and gave private householders the same powers of eviction as councils. As a result, squatters now have no rights.

Yet squatting still occurs, if bit less visibly, the result mostly of youth homelessness. For many young people squatting, initially at least, may be the only way they can find a home. The 1998 NatWest Student Book suggests squatting for students unable to obtain or hold on to any other accommodation.

The reality today is very different from the cases of teenage thugs rampaging through upmarket homes while the owners are abroad, as sometimes appear in the media. "Empty homes do not lead to squatting," says Bob Lawrence of the Empty Homes Agency (EHA). "The problem comes from other factors, particularly changes to housing benefit which restricted benefits for young people and made squatting one of the few options for many young single people."

Jim Carey, who co-edits Squall, a quarterly magazine for squatters, has been a squatter for 13 years, first as a student struggling to manage on a grant and now as a voluntary worker and journalist. At present he lives in north London, in a house awaiting demolition. His previous home was in central London where he lived for three-and-a-half years, with the owner's knowledge. "I always try to contact the owner to present myself as a responsible person, to counteract the stereotype," he says.

"The situation can be mutually beneficial. If the owner has no immediate plans to renovate the property, by me living there, keeping the place dry and shooing out the pigeons, it will be protected to some extent from further depreciation."

Mr Carey's advice to would-be squatters is to look for an obviously empty, derelict property. "The more run down the property, the greater 'rooftime' you are likely to have."

He is not advocating that anyone breaks the law. Squatting is legal as long as there is no criminal damage to the building, so breaking and entering is out. Repairs and redecoration to a seriously run-down property are acceptable. Utilities are generally available to squatters as long as they pay the bills. Electricity boards will not knowingly supply a squat, but it is possible to get round this.

Squatters are obliged to leave the property immediately if asked to by the owner. Continued occupancy becomes a criminal offence and the police can get involved. Whether they will actually do so is another matter, depending on the regional force's resources. If they decline to help, the property owner can take court action (see panel). But, says Jim Paton of the Advisory Service for Squatters: "Most squatters are not looking for aggro. They are used to living with a cycle of evictions and will move on when asked."

Mr Paton predicts an increase in squatting, for two reasons. "With the slump in the housing market came a boom in the private rental market as owners let properties instead of selling. Now the market has taken off again, much of this accommodation will be lost."

The second factor is the reduction in "short-life" housing. The lifting of government spending restrictions will give local authorities money to renovate short-life properties - hard-to-let flats and houses, some in near- derelict condition and many legally unfit for human habitation. Short-life housing grew out of squatting: tenants moved in as squatters and then negotiated with councils to rent legitimately. Some tenants have been in short-life properties for over 10 years, but have no rights of tenure and will lose their homes to those on the priority housing lists once they are renovated.

Local councils do not look kindly on squatters, but neither do most take a hard line. "If the property is on offer to a family, we will apply for a court order to evict a squatter if reasonable requests have failed," says Rosie Brocklehurst, spokeswoman for Camden Council. "We can criminalise squatting under the Public Order Act, but we don't."

The Empty Homes Agency estimates that there are 800,000 empty homes, against official estimates of 160,000 homeless households. Shelter, a charity for the homeless, believes homelessness is much higher - many single young people are not counted because they are ineligible for local authority housing or are living in hostels and other temporary accommodation.

For many squatters, it is a last resort. "Although we don't condone it, we can see why it has become necessary," says Susan Littlemore of Shelter. "If a person cannot get any other accommodation, it is preferable to sleeping on the streets."

HOW TO DEAL WITH SQUATTERS

q If you have an empty property, make sure that it is fully secure - Chubb locks on all the doors and locks on the windows. To avoid criminal prosecution, squatters will have to prove they gained peaceful access.

q If squatters have found a way in, first talk to them and decide if it is to your advantage to have them remain, for a short time at least. They may decorate and make minor repairs, and will deter anyone else from breaking in.

q If you want them out, tell them so - they will probably move on. It would be wise to oversee their departure to check that no damage has been done and no property stolen.

q If they refuse to move on, get proof of ownership - a statement witnessed by a solicitor will be sufficient. With this in hand, apply to the local County Court for an eviction court order. A hearing can usually take place within seven days and will cost pounds 80.

q If the squatters ignore this, the court will issue a Possession Warrant (for another pounds 80) and send a court bailiff to evict them.

q The police are then obliged to be present during the eviction to ensure no that no breach of the peace occurs.

q If in any doubt - the forms involved in obtaining a court order or a possession warrant must be filled in correctly - take legal advice.

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