My criminal past

Back in the early 80s I did what many people arriving in London did: I squatted in a house that had been left empty. Anyone doing the same after Saturday will be a criminal.

The house in question was owned by the Greater London Council (GLC) and like many others owned by local authorities all over London it had been left empty for years because of a road scheme that never was or a slum clearance scheme that was never finished. Nobody was living there and, given the big hole in the floor of one of the bedrooms and the water streaming down the walls of most of the others, that was understandable. So when we squatted it we were not denying anybody else a home, we were simply fixing it up and creating one for ourselves in what became one more squat in a whole street of squats. Given that we were all on the dole (this was 1981, the worst time to be a graduate until now) we were probably even saving the taxpayer money.

After several months we were taken to court by the GLC but at the last minute we were helped by a local short-life housing association (the first time I had ever heard the term) that was allowed to take over the house on a proper license. Last time I looked it was still there although I had soon moved on. Ironically enough, years later I was to meet the man who signed the eviction notice on the editorial board of ROOF magazine. I also realised that I had come in at the tail-end of a wave of squatting across London that included everyone from Robert Elms to the cousin of a certain future housing minister (the 101ers, the forerunner of The Clash was even named after the squat where they lived in Walterton Road). Then, as now, there were people who suffered because of squatting but the vast majority of squatters simply wanted somewhere to live. In the process, they must have saved thousands of abandoned homes across London.

The trigger for memories of those days is obviously the imminent passing into law of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). Government ministers have been all over the air waves proclaiming that they are ‘criminalising’ squatting. In fact, as they very well know and were told by 160 housing academics, solicitors and barristers, it was already a criminal offence to occupy a home where someone is living or is about to live. LASPO makes it criminal to enter any residential building regardless of how many years it has been empty and regardless of whether it has simply been abandoned. Crispin Blunt told the Today programme this morning that it was about ‘fairness and justice for homeowners’

For more about the details of the Act and about its enforcement, see the excellent Nearly Legal blog. There are already doubts about how it will work, with worries that it could be used by unscrupulous landlords to evict their tenants matched by concern that clever squatters could delay things so much by making up fake tenancy agreements that the police will get sick of enforcing it and resort to the usual ‘it’s a civil matter’ cover they use in other housing cases (see @LettingFocus on twitter for more on this).

Obviously my squatting past and the fact that I write so much about housing put me on the side of those who maintain that the really criminal thing here is keeping homes empty rather than using them as homes. It makes me sit up and take notice when Crisis points out that the new law will leave vulnerable homeless people facing up to six months imprisonment or a fine they cannot pay. It makes me think about how many people who end up working in or in some way involved in housing used to be squatters.

However, it also makes me look for something to go with such a draconian crackdown: tough new measures against property owners who leave homes empty in the middle of a housing crisis.  Prodded into action by the Liberal Democrats, the coalition has at least done something with extra funding and new homes bonus for work to bring empty homes back into use and legislation to waive council tax relief on some empties. What’s needed though is a simple and enforceable way to take over the management of long-term empty properties from owners who refuse to do anything with them. Back in 1981, many empty homes were already owned by local authorities or government departments, which made things easier for a wave of short-life housing associations to get involved. However, as last year’s Great British Property Scandal showed, 88 per cent of long-term empties are now privately owned.

One mechanism already exists and has done since 2006: an empty dwelling management order allows a local authority to take over a long-term empty for 12 months (on an interim basis) or up to seven years (for a final order) and let it out. The trouble, as the table below from a parliamentary answer last year makes clear, is that councils have applied for less than 100 EDMOs since 2006 and less than 50 have been granted.

That’s out of 279,000 homes in England that have been empty for more than six months.

Whatever the reasons for that, whether EDMOs were too cumbersome or too expensive or both, you might have thought that the priority would be to make them easier to use while retaining protection for owners whose property is empty for good reasons. Instead the opposite happened. Exactly the same papers that have cheerled the clampdown on squatting mounted a sustained assault on EDMOs with a succession of questionable anecdotes. In 2006 the DCLG even felt moved to issue a statement denying misleading claims made in the press.

In 2011, Eric Pickles at last promised action. However, far from making EDMOs more effective in tackling the scandal of empty property, he was actually intent on making them much more difficult to use. In future, he said, EDMOs would only apply to properties that ‘have become magnets for vandalism, squatters and other forms of anti-social behaviour’ and the property would have to be empty for more than two years with owners given at least three months’ notice. For a full account of EDMOs, see this research briefing from the Commons Library.

A real solution to the scandal of long-term empty property would of course involve far more than just EDMOs. The point of interest here though is the language in which the policy was framed and the ideology behind it. In a phrase that could have been lifted straight out of Crispin Blunt’s interview or statement today on squatting, the headline on the Pickles press release was ‘Pickles acts to protect the rights of homeowners’.

Just like the clampdown on squatting, this was really about protecting property rights. Properties that are left empty in the long term are no longer homes. They become homes when someone lives in them. That is what I was doing back in 1981 and that is what people in far more housing need who will now become criminals are doing in the middle of a housing crisis in 2012.

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5 Comments on “My criminal past”

  1. Nigel Durbridge says:

    Squatting in clearly abandoned or derelict housing is a million miles from breaking into a house under renovation, one that is temporarily unoccupied between let’s or empty because a family have gone on holiday. The notion that squatters are in some way urban heroes or saving housing for the benefit of all is no longer valid. No longer Robin Hood, just robbing bastards! If someone took my car because I wasn’t using it for a few weeks it would be considered theft regardless of whether I had left it open or locked.

    I have never had the misfortune to have encountered squatters but came close when I bought a run down house to renovate back in 2002. The sale went through at 2pm on a Friday afternoon and at 8am the following day I was off to Portugal for a week. Whilst boarding it up several people tried to come in to squat. I sent them packing and rang the police to ask them to keep an eye on the place. The police came round to talk to me and reminded me that if forcible removed squatters that I would be arrested. Now the boot is on the other foot and in my opinion not a moment too soon. The property of private individuals must have full protection under the law.

    More should be done to get empty houses back into use. Councils and housing associations should be legally bound to get empty houses back into use within a time frame or face fines, private houses should not be allowed to fall into disrepair, but how can you take over someone’s house just because it is not occupied? This would bring into question the right to have a second home or holiday home.

  2. julesbirch says:

    Thanks for the comment, Nigel. There is clearly a balance to be struck between the rights of home owners to their home and the rights of the community to expect properties that have been empty for a long time to be brought back into use as homes with a big grey area in between. However, as I understand it, the distinction you draw between abandoned/derelict property and homes empty because a family has gone on holiday was already drawn in the existing law. To quote the 160 lawyers I mentioned before (this was writing in September 2011):

    ‘We want it to be clear that it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone’s home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977. A homeowner will be a displaced residential occupier, or if they are intending to move into the property, a protected intended occupier. In either case, it is a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in the property as soon as they have been told of the displaced occupier or a protected occupier. The police can arrest any trespasser who does not leave. The displaced or protected occupier can use force to enter the property and reasonable force to remove the trespassers.’

    I’m not sure how this would have applied on your own case but it is not unknown for the police to get the law wrong in housing cases?

    The new law makes squatting in a property that is not a home a criminal offence and therefore criminalises squatting in abandoned or derelict property too. As Crisis says, this in turn criminalises homeless people who are just trying to find a place off the streets. A balance could have been struck (but wasn’t) by accepting an amendment that the law would only apply in cases where the property in question had been empty for less than six months. There is also (or should be) another balance to be struck here too but the change in the law has not been accompanied by any extra help for homeless people or by new measures to encourage or force owners of long-term empty property back into use as homes.

    • Nigel Durbridge says:

      One problem of the old law was that many “professional” squatters would produce fake tenancy agreements resulting in the police failing to take action. This may still happen, but equally those who are squatting in abandoned properties will only have action taken against them once the owner has knowledge of the squatting. If the property is truly abandoned it may take some time before any action is taken.

      The premise of the squatter saying “use it or lose it” cannot be right and does not give you rights to anyone else’s property other than a house.

  3. All those who claim that the law was already adequate for domestic properties have totally missed the point. For me, the worst part of having squatters in my house would be “invasion of privacy”, not the lesser (but still important) “invasion of property”. And the risk of loss or damage to “souvenirs” (books my father left; my photographs; etc) far outweighs the loss or damage to commodities such as bricks and mortar or TVs, etc. My experience of having my house broken into and having lots of things stolen reinforced to me what I was most concerned with, and it wasn’t things that insurance companies can replace.

    The important consequences of having one’s home entered cannot be reversed. After an hour or two of possession, it is too late. The only answer I know of is prevention, and that must include deterrence. Before, there was no deterrence-of-entry to someone ready to depart once they were notified of an order to leave. Now simply entering incurs a penalty, and so is deterred. I don’t want simply to know that squatters would leave, possibly after they have read my private correspondence and ruined my photographs in ways that I could never prove against them. I want then never to enter in the first place. The point about the penalty isn’t retribution, it is deterrence.

    In my submission to the consultation (which is copied online and could probably easily be found by searches) I made it clear that I was restricting my comments to squatting in my (one and only) home, “my castle”. I personally don’t care about unoccupied properties, and said so. I emphasised that the crime must commence before, not after, two hours.

    Those lawyers who claim that the previous law was OK are perhaps used to working in a system that slowly resolves disputes about property, but is not so good at rapid prevention of loss of privacy. People supporting the homeless and/or squatters won’t place the privacy and souvenirs of owner/occupiers as high priority. This was probably foolish, because it made potential enemies of 14 million households! Perhaps there would have been a way of having a different law where “invasion of privacy” was not an issue – presumably genuinely empty properties. But it isn’t obvious how the owner/occupier (like me) could be protected without treating ALL cases as potential criminal offenses.

    The world has moved on a lot from times when the main problems might have been bricks and mortar and video recorders. We are in the information age, where words and memory-triggers and digits are increasingly important. “Squatting” has a completely different relationship to those things, and so does “theft” and “damage” and insurance, etc. Perhaps squatting as a viable activity has just come to the end of its useful life. I certainly don’t accept that this new law is caused by the nature of the current government or a particular MP. It is a law whose time had come (and some time ago, not 2012; England & Wales are behind some other places, including Scotland).

    • julesbirch says:

      Thanks for the comment, Barry, you put that over very well. Glad to hear you made the distinction between homes and abandoned property and just to be clear I wasn’t talking about somewhere that could remotely have been considered someone else’s home. For me the question is whether the new law strikes the right balance and I fear that it risks making things much worse for people who are desperate for a home without necessarily making things better for home owners. David Smith of Nearly Legal has an interesting piece for The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/sep/03/moj-squatting-circular) on enforcement and the question of whether the police will act.


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