Campaigners warn that the Government's plan to criminalise squatting, which was debated in the Commons yesterday, could increase homelessness and place lives at risk. But our greater sympathies here lie with householders, who fear little more than arriving back from holiday to find their home occupied by strangers and the prospect of a long and expensive legal battle to reclaim it.
The new provision, which would bring England into line with Scotland, should make it easier for the legal owners to move back in, while discouraging a practice that has become something of a scourge, especially in London. Making squatting a crime, however, must not blind MPs and others to the circumstances that have contributed to it: the shortage of reasonably priced housing and the number of unoccupied premises. It is estimated that council housing lists could be substantially reduced, if empty homes were brought into use.
Rising house prices, tax incentives for buy-to-let investment and low interest rates on savings have all helped produce a situation where housing is seen as a money-spinner, rather than somewhere to live. And with much of London defying the trend towards stagnating, or falling, house-prices, this will not change soon.
Which is why the proposed end to council tax discounts for second homes is a step in the right direction. The justification – that part-time residents use fewer services – is surely trumped by the argument that anyone who can afford a second home can afford a second tax. The change would also prevent people from choosing the lower rate where the tax is higher, which can penalise London. At a time of housing shortage and general belt-tightening, it is reasonable to ask those with two homes to pay a little more.