What do Richard Branson and Boy George have in common other than their obvious musical backgrounds? Whilst they are now at different ends of the entertainment scale, they both lived in a squat at some point during their earlier lives.
‘Squatting’ is occupying an area of land or a building that you have no permission to use. The UK has a long history of squatting, the practice of which grew rapidly during the 1960s and 70s when people looked for alternative lifestyles and the ‘permissive society’ gained momentum.
In 1977 it became illegal to use violence or threatening behaviour to enter a property where someone was living; this law was aimed at unscrupulous landlords to stop them from using violence to evict tenants.
Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 became known as squatters’ rights and the law was weighted in favour of the tenant.
But the gentle John Lennon, peace loving hippy vision of squatters has become one of menacing law breaking drug addicted unemployed hoodlums.
But has today’s image of the squatter been created by exaggerated media representation or has the addict of the peaceful life become the parasitic sponger of the welfare state with a slightly different and less innocent addiction?
Of the single homeless people in the UK, 40% of them are thought to be squatting; 42% of these people have a physical or mental disability and 34% have been in care (Sheffield Hallam University study September 2011).
Government estimates put the number of squatters in the UK at 20,000 however squatting support groups such as Crisis, say numbers are much higher.
The Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) say the number of people on local authority housing lists has doubled since 1997 to 5 million whilst there are 950,000 empty properties, some of which are council owned.
Justice Minister Crispin Blunt has said the government have a strategy to tackle homelessness “I think we are spending £164 million on bringing empty properties back into use …”
But homeless charities say the problem goes much deeper and turning squatters into criminals is not the answer; Leslie Morphy of Crisis said “there was already legal provision that police could have used. It will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat …”
However, as squatting was unlawful and not illegal it meant the owner of a property had to go through the civil courts and prove the squatters were trespassing before they could take any action and this took time and money.
But just how “vulnerable” can a person be when they have an 83 page Squatters’ Handbook, now in its 13th edition, to help them and how many of them have their iPhones etc. so they can access social networking sites in order to find the best homes to occupy?
But the defence of squatters as being ‘vulnerable’ holds no weight with Dr Oliver Cockerell and his heavily pregnant wife who were victims of a group of Eastern European immigrant squatters who occupied their London house, even changing the locks so no one could gain entry.
However, Dr Cockerell’s campaign to change the law met with success; since Saturday 1 September 2012, squatting in a residential building became a criminal offence and a person faces up to 6 months in prison, a £5,000 fine or both.
Housing Minister Grant Shapps said “no longer will there be so called squatters’ rights”; but with the increased number of incidents in the more affluent areas of London (Belgravia, Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Notting Hill), could it be that the change in law is due to the clout of the wealthy minority and the underlying problem of sufficient housing is not being addressed?
But what about those people who have lived in a property for several years, perhaps even made improvements and who pay tax and bills? Take Irene Gardiner who has lived as a squatter with two of her children in the same cottage in Newchapel, South Wales for the past 11 years? According to the law, she should be forced to move out but would then become a burden on the local housing authority. What sense is there in that?
So should we view squatters with sympathy and understanding and support their demands for more affordable housing or was the government right to make it a criminal offence?
A case of using a sledge hammer to crack a nut with the underlying problem being ignored or should all squatters be assumed to have criminal intent?
Some (now) famous squatters: Richard Branson, Bob Geldof, Boy George and Ian Dury, who said squatting helped their musical creativity.
Some of the big names that have been victims of squatters are Queens Park Rangers player Joey Barton and Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Ritchie whose Fitzroy Square home was occupied by the Really Free School squatter movement in February 2011.
Crisis – the national charity for single homeless people www.crisis.org.uk.
Shelter – the housing & homelessness charity www.shelter.org.uk.