Plans to tackle squatting could criminalise homelessness
The government is seeking to ‘strengthen’ property laws to deal with squatters, but experts warn plans could hit the vulnerable
“The days of so-called squatters rights must end,” declares prisons minister Crispin Blunt, in the introduction of the government’s latest consultation on the issue. “Squatters who break the law [must] receive a proper punishment. There are avenues open to those that are genuinely destitute which do not involve occupying somebody else’s property.”
The consultation, Options for dealing with squatting, details new measures to criminalise the practice of squatting, including “strengthening” related laws. Under the plans trespass will become a criminal offence. The government is resolute. “No matter how compelling or difficult the squatter’s own circumstances, it is wrong that legitimate occupants should be deprived of the use of their property,” Blunt writes.
The statements may make good political capital, but housing experts fear the proposed policy could have a devastating impact on those forced into squats through desperation, rather than lifestyle choice – a group that is set to grow as soaring rents price young people out of the private rental sector, and changes to welfare reform and housing benefit strangle social housing allocations.
“The results of our recent study revealed that just under 40% of homeless people have also squatted,” Katharine Sacks-Jones, policy manager at Crisis, explains. “What worries us about the criminalisation of squatting is that it may also criminalise homeless people at a time when homelessness is on the rise.”
Sacks-Jones says rules around the obligation of local authorities to house those found to be unintentionally homeless and in priority need, such as pregnant women or families with children, can leave many people falling through the cracks. “Many single people do not fall into these categories and are not eligible for housing. People are also entitled to free housing advice and assistance, but that does not always happen and homeless people are often turned away at the reception of their local council’s offices,” she says.
The consultation paper admits that there is little government research into squatting. Paul Palmer, an empty properties consultant who has worked for local authorities for more than two decades, fears the consultation may be trading on the misconceptions that can be encouraged by newspaper horror stories.
“All this business about people worrying about going away in case their house is squatted is nonsense,” Palmer says. “This sort of ‘squatting’ comes under [the legal definition of] breaking and entering, and under new powers that the government introduced in April owners can have them removed on the same day.”
Palmer says “proper” squatters take possession of long-term vacant properties. “If it is not being used, they will affect entry. In legal terms, that is called ‘adverse possession’, which exists because governments have recognised that we are a very small island.”
So-called “squatters’ rights” do not exist; rather, there is a broad set of laws relating to property ownership and occupancy which can be used by squatters, landlords, owners and property guardians alike. Under current rules, squatters that affect entry into a vacant property are only committing a civil wrong unless it can be proved that their entry was forced. There is, however, a danger that unscrupulous private landlords seeking swift evictions could exploit the proposals.
Fears have also been raised that unscrupulous private sector landlords could exploit the proposals to seek a swift eviction, as previous laws which prevented this but protected squatters could be repealed. But Chris Norris, policy manager at the National Landlord’s Association, remains sceptical.
“If there is any indication that a landlord-tenant agreement has existed, then those circumstances cannot be considered a criminal act,” he says. “Anybody trying to use potential anti-squatting legislation to evict a private tenant must also be aware that protection from harassment and protection from eviction legislation exists for a reason, and that they will open themselves up to criminal prosecution if they use those methods.”
While the future use of the proposed legislation remains speculative, social landlords may also find it favours them. Following the recent riots in London, Wandsworth council has evicted the family of a convicted rioter from their council house.
A spokesperson for Wandsworth explains that the council was “likely to support” the introduction of measures to “robustly discourage squatting and ensure that, in those rare instances where it does happen, the owners are able to re-secure possession of the property with the absolute minimum of delay”.
However, as use of stop-and-search measures implemented under anti-terrorism laws have shown, exceptions can later prove the rule. The proposals include an exemption for protestors occupying public buildings in an attempt to address this. But Paul Reynolds, a spokesman for the squatting campaign Squash, warns this is often not how the law operates.
“What’s more likely is that any new law or changes in legislation will be selectively enforced. On a personal level, I think that at a time when the economy is facing difficulties coupled with high unemployment and historically high rents in London as well cuts to social housing provision, what squatting represents is a real ideological threat – which also partially explains the timing of this consultation,” he says, describing the policy as “incredulous”.
Squatting also shines a light on the thorny issue of empty homes, which successive governments have failed to address. Figures from the Empty Homes Agency show there were 738,414 empty homes across England in 2010, most of those in the private sector. Raising the issue of long-term vacant properties through a consultation aimed at private owners – while cuts to social housing grant and the progress of the localism bill continue unabated – could arguably herald a new dawn of housing solutions delivered by the private sector.
Consultation responses will be collected by the government in October, when the public debate over squatting and housing shortage will continue.