Squatters' rights - and wrongs

As the Housing Minister pledges to shut the door on the "anti-social, undesirable and unfair" practise forever, a fierce debate still rages between property owners and their uninvited house guests

The squatter

Dan Simon, 32, works for an art house

Some friends and I occupied an empty local Housing Association town house in Balham in south London for a while. When we first arrived, the backyard was a zone for fly-tippers, windows had been broken, and it was falling into disrepair. After a few months, we had transformed it, cleared the backyard of junk and sown grass, restored the plumbing and made it into a functional home. That's one of the advantages we present to owners of properties, and to neighbourhood communities. The Housing Association eventually agreed that having us in the house was far better than evicting us. After four years, they sold it to a private buyer and we left.

Squatting is hard work, and enormously stressful, but provides an invaluable platform for creative people to contribute more effectively to society, and empowers vulnerable people who might otherwise face homelessness. Squats are some of the most social, thriving and community-oriented spaces I've ever experienced in London.

I am currently living in a squat in east London, and run The Oubliette, an itinerant autonomous arts group, which showcases new work by squatting long-term empty properties. We have hosted visual, three-dimensional, performance and music-based works, as well as charity fundraising events.

When we look for places to squat, we're looking for places we can stay for the long term with minimal interference. It's extremely unusual for squatters to target people's homes. Occupying someone's home is illegal, makes no sense, and home owners are protected by law. If you occupy somebody's home instead of an empty house, you are not a squatter, you're a criminal trespasser. You'd have to be extraordinarily stupid to try to move into a place where there was somebody already living. That's why cases like that are extraordinarily rare.

Finding somewhere is simple. First, you look around and identify a good property that looks empty, then investigate it on websites such as the Land Registry site and the local authority planning site. You look up the company that owns the property – most of the property we inhabit is owned by companies or local housing authorities. Only once we are absolutely certain that the property is not in use do we enter it."

The Home owner

Connan Gupta, 40, is a hotelier, who had his house in south London occupied while on holiday

Last month I came back to my home in Camberwell from a week at my sister's and couldn't get in. At first, I thought I had the wrong keys, but when I saw a sign in the window, I realised that there were squatters in there. I banged on the door for a few minutes, and said: 'This is my home, open the door.' They told me to go away.

I called the police straight away, but was told – incorrectly – that there was nothing they could do, and I should hire a solicitor and go through the civil courts.

I was completely in shock. I couldn't believe that this was going on, that there was someone in my house with everything of mine inside, and I couldn't get them out.

I went to Brixton police station, where I asked to see someone with regard to the case. I was again told there was nothing they could do. I didn't really want to focus in on what they were doing with my stuff, how many people were there. My main focus at that time was just to get them out. I was just so shocked they had invaded my home.

I was feeling very distressed – beside myself. There were reports that there were more than 15 people in the house, together with three dogs and two cats. To see people, as I did, going in and out of my home, to see them responding to the local papers and laughing was much worse a violation than burglary. And I couldn't do anything about it.

It wasn't until my local MP, Tessa Jowell, got involved that I found out that there is no such thing as squatters' rights because home owners are protected, and the police finally asked them to leave, then forced entry when they refused.

My place was a complete mess and I had to change the doors and get the locks changed, but basically I was back in my house, very relieved, but still in shock.

Looking back, the whole episode is maddening. I don't know what rights my status as home owner entitle me to. Even my solicitor advised me to go down the civil route. If I'm not aware of the laws, and neither the police nor my solicitor makes them clear to me, then it's very confusing. In the end, I'm very thankful that my local MP with the local Safer Neighbourhood team were able to help me. But every time I go out, I have a sense of paranoia now: are there people watching the house? I haven't been able to work properly since, and I've felt at times like I'm a prisoner in my own house."

The campaigner

Leslie Morphy, chief executive, Crisis

"People squat because they've got no alternative. There's clearly not a sufficient safety net, and people who are squatting have usually fallen through the gaps. There's often a feeling that squatting is a lifestyle choice, but it is often difficult and certainly dangerous. We've done research which shows that 39 per cent of homeless people have squatted at some point.

It's often a question of whether you'd prefer to have property that's lived in and managed than one that's left empty. And in terms of the fabric of buildings, if a property is being used in a sensible way, that's better than allowing it to go to rack and ruin.

Nobody is going to say those odd cases where someone has come back from holiday and found their house has been squatted are justified. But they are the rarity. There are 700,000 empty homes in England, and the Government has to bring some of those back int o use, to provide accommodation."

The lawyer

Jason Hunter, partner and head of Contentious Property at Russell-Cooke LLP

"The word 'squatter' is generally used to describe someone who is trespassing on land that belongs to someone else. Trespassing means occupying land without the permission or authority of the owner, so it follows that it is not 'legal', but it is not always a criminal offence. However, when squatters have occupied a house that can be proved to be somebody's home, it can be a criminal offence for them not to leave when asked to do so.

Except in these cases – which are quite rare – squatters have the 'right' not to be evicted by force; attempting to do so would itself constitute a criminal offence. As a first recourse, simply asking the squatter to leave is usually worth trying. If the squatter refuses, the owner must seek a possession order from the court to evict them, though if the squatters leave a property, for example to pop out to the shops, the owner can turn the tables on them and nip in and change the locks themselves."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
Premier League Live Saturday 23 August
sportAll the action from today's Premier League matches
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (C++ / C# / HTML, Java Angular.js) London

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A world leading business intellig...

Application Support Analyst-(UNIX, Linux, Financial Services)

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Application Support Analyst-(UNIX...

Application Support Analyst - SQL, UNIX, Linux

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Application Support Analyst - SQL...

Application Support - FIX protocol, UNIX, SQL, Windows, OMS

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Application Support - FIX protoco...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition