The traditional view that the Tories are the party of the landed classes was built on solid bedrock. More recent events show that it continues to hold good. The last time they were in power they orchestrated the largest land-grab in living memory – the ‘right to buy’ – through which council housing passed to property magnates and buy-to-let landlords under the auspices of helping people onto the property ladder. This time around, spurred on by misleading articles in the right-wing media, they’ve announced plans to make squatting illegal and to allow landlords to forcibly evict people – whether squatters or tenant – backed up by the iron fist of the law.
This campaign is draped in the garb of individual property rights. The Home Secretary, Ken Clarke, told the Telegraph that he “has had enough of seeing hard working homeowners battle to get squatters out” and is “determined to use the full force of the law to save people from the nightmare of having to fight to get their houses back.” But this is not about helping you or I defend our patch of dirt and the two-up, two-down built upon it. It is a calculated effort to empower those who own more property than they can ever use at the expense of those who have nothing.
It goes without saying that the individual stories presented in support of the government’s policy should not be taken at face value. Tabloid tales of home owners returning from holiday to find their homes occupied often have nothing to do with squatters, instead involving organised criminal gangs fraudulently subletting properties. The Daily Mail managed to spin such a case into the harrowing tale of “knife-wielding Lithuanian squatters” despite the admitting in the article that the “squatters” had paid £600 in rent and that police were investigating the phoney landlord.
A similar and widely-quoted story involving a dog-walking pensioner also turned out to involve fraudulent subletting, although that hasn’t stopped the Government referring to it in its guide to homeowners on kicking out squatters. But these stories have provided a compelling narrative which transcends their veracity, making space for an unprecedented assault on vulnerable people.
Barry Wilton of SQUASH, a campaign group fighting the proposals, believes that the government is trying to pre-empt a wave of squatting brought about by spending cuts and rising unemployment. “They [the government] know that the financial crisis will lead to thousands of ordinary people being evicted for rent arrears or for getting behind with their mortgage,” he says. “With hundreds of thousands of empty properties gathering dust, it’s obvious that many of those people will turn to squatting as a legitimate reaction to a crisis they didn’t cause.”
Wilton acknowledges that some squatters – like the collective who briefly occupied Guy Ritchie’s house – do move into residential properties. But he points out that homeowners are well protected by existing legal powers which balance the rights of legitimate tenants with those of landlords and owner-occupiers. ‘Displaced residential occupiers’ have the right to force entry if they find their property squatted; ‘protected intending occupiers’ (such as people whose home is being renovated) can get the police to evict on their behalf. It is already a criminal offence for a squatter to refuse to leave in such circumstances, and the police can and do intervene.
Non-residential property owners can’t kick down the door, but they can apply for an Interim Possession Order (IPO) within four weeks of finding out that squatters have moved in. It’s true that this requires going to court, but as we shall see, there are very good reasons for this bureaucracy. It is a criminal offence not to leave the property 24 hours after being served with an IPO. IPOs are clearly effective: the Ministry of Justice states that only three people were prosecuted between 2007 and 2009 for failing to comply with an IPO. The rest, suggests Wilton, either found somewhere else to squat or went back to sleeping on the streets; the private rental market remains stubbornly out of reach of those who squat, partly because some landlords would rather keep houses empty than accept a reduced rent.
Given the range of powers available to owner-occupiers and non-residential occupiers, it makes no sense for even the most desperate of squatters to move into a house which is clearly lived in. Instead, squatters are more likely to move into abandoned buildings owned by commercial or absentee landlords. Unlike owner-occupiers, owners of commercial properties can’t force their way back in because Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offense for non-residents to use violence to enter a property where someone inside is opposed to their entry.
This law was brought in to give tenants protection from landlords, a fact of which the government is well aware. Crispin Blunt, the Prisons Minister, explained that although Section 6 “was designed to stop unscrupulous landlords from using violence to evict legitimate tenants,” he and his colleagues were considering ways to give “give non-residential property owners the same rights as displaced residential occupiers to break back into their property.” Instead of bringing both parties before a judge, which gives tenants a chance to prove they’ve the right to be there, often-complex housing issues would be dealt with on the doorstep, further inflaming an already heated situation.
Wilton argues that removing these protections will prove impractical. “You can imagine the situation,” he says. “The police turn up at the door and are told that the occupier is a squatter and asked to get them out. They’re expected, with no training, to decide who is right and who is wrong, and to act accordingly.” It’s a recipe for disaster, which may explain why the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police opposed similar plans in the early 1990s.
It is difficult not to view these proposals as ideologically driven. This is, after all, a government which is relying on stories it knows are bogus to force through changes it accepts will only hurt vulnerable people. There are hundreds of thousands of empty properties in the UK – 650,000 in England alone, according to the Empty Homes Association. Is it really so bad if people put them to more productive use than their owners, especially if they’d otherwise require housing benefit or council housing?
“Ultimately,” says Wilton, “squatters are just stepping in to fill the gap brought about by a failure of both Tory and Labour governments to get to grips with the housing crisis. We should be seizing empty properties and giving them to people who need them, not locking up people for wanting a place to live.” That may be anathema to a party of inherited wealth and property, but it may well be the only equitable solution to this crisis which, we should remember, was caused by the very people that these new laws have been designed protect.